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Circumstantial Evidence Provides Sufficient Grounds to Charge a Suspect with DUI Under Pennsylvania Law

While it is common knowledge you can be charged with DUI if a police officer directly observes you driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, many people are unaware you can be charged with DUI even if the arresting officer did not actually witness you operating a vehicle. In Yencha v. Commonwealth, et al., the court clarified the issue of what constitutes sufficient evidence for charging an individual of driving under the influence of alcohol within the framework of Pennsylvania DUI law.stop

In Yencha, an officer responded to a call regarding a hit and run accident. When he arrived at the scene, the victim and a witness to the accident both described the vehicle involved in the hit and run and the man driving the vehicle. The witness also provided the license plate number of the vehicle. The officer ran the license plate number and subsequently found the vehicle parked outside of the suspect’s residence. The officer noted the vehicle had front-end damage. The officer spoke with the suspect, who reported his vehicle had been damaged in a previous accident and denied any knowledge of the hit and run accident. The officer noted the suspect had glassy eyes, slurred speech and an odor of alcohol on his breath and requested the suspect undergo a field sobriety test. The suspect refused to undergo any testing. The officer arrested the suspect for suspicion of DUI and being involved in a hit and run. The suspect was transported to the police station, where he again refused to submit to a breath test.

Following a trial, the Department of Transportation (DOT) imposed a one year suspension on the suspect’s license for failure to submit to the breath test. The suspect appealed, arguing the officer did not have reasonable grounds to charge the suspect with DUI and therefore the suspension for failure to submit to a breath test was improper. The trial court sustained the suspect’s appeal and reversed the suspension. The DOT appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, arguing the trial court erred when it held the officer did not have reasonable grounds to believe the suspect was driving under the influence of alcohol, and the suspension should be reinstated.

On appeal, the court stated the burden of proof for whether an officer had reasonable grounds to suspect a person of driving under the influence of alcohol was low. An officer does not need to prove his suspicion was correct, or even observe the individual driving a vehicle, to suspect the individual of operating under the influence. Courts generally defer to an officer’s observations where the entirety of the circumstances supports his suspicion of DUI. Based on these standards, the Yencha court found the officer had reasonable grounds to believe the suspect had been operating his vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and reversed the trial court ruling. The court noted the trial court erred in holding DOT needed direct evidence in support of the officer’s belief the suspect was driving under the influence, and stated the correct standard was whether the officer had reasonable grounds in support of his belief. The court reviewed the facts of the case and found that the officer reasonably suspected the suspect of DUI based on circumstantial evidence, and therefore both the DUI charge and subsequent one year suspension of the suspect’s license for failure to submit to a breath test were proper.

If you were arrested and charged with DUI but were not driving a vehicle at the time of your arrest, it is important to know your rights. You should meet with a skilled DUI attorney as soon as possible to assess your case. Zachary B. Cooper is a skilled criminal defense attorney and can advise you as to the best plan to defend your case. Call (215) 542-0800 for a consultation.

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